By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
As the movie begins he is a penniless has-been, dismissed by the mavens of high art as a mediocre talent who never lived up to his early promise. But he seems untroubled by this as he struggles with maniacal intensity to render the images burning inside his head. Jimson is a conniving con artist, a deadbeat and a scrounger, willing to manipulate and exploit anyone and everyone to realize his one overriding aspiration: to find a stretch of wall large enough to contain the mural he's sure will be his masterpiece.
"When we first saw this movie, we were amazed," Kesey explained. By "we" he was referring to his classmates at Wallace Stegner's legendary Stanford writing program, including Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Ed McClanahan and Wendell Berry. "We never realized people could live like that. I don't see anybody doing that these days — living only for art."
Kesey wholeheartedly embraced the concept of the artist as outlaw, as an agitator who wages a one-man jihad against conformity. He refused to confine himself to the comfortable womb of literary life: tapping out books in a cozy little office, giving interviews to Sunday supplements and public broadcasting stations, elaborating on his recurring themes in literary quarterlies and university lecture halls. Instead, Kesey bounded into the public spotlight in the costumes of comic book superheroes and goaded American youth into abandoning the "I Like Ike" uniformity of the 1950s. He not only chronicled his times, but he also shaped them.
But he paid a terrible price. As the years passed, in the public's mind, the outlandish costumes became the man. Kesey's identity blurred with that of Wavy Gravy, the official clown of Woodstock. As the bloom of the counterculture wilted, and the malaise of the '70s gave way to the culture wars that prevail to this day, the literary establishment dismissed Kesey as a flash in the pan who would never amount to more than a footnote in literary history.
Mark Christensen is only too happy to reinforce these stereotypes, concluding: "Kesey parlayed an unholy trinity of language, drugs and hunger for an anti-authoritarian god to a briefly glorious Yellow Brick Road to nowhere."
Kesey's feelings about the choices he made were complicated. In many interviews he remained defiant, claiming his psychedelic school bus was his greatest creation. At other times he admitted he might have squandered his literary talents. He was keenly aware of his shortcomings: He drank too much booze, smoked too much dope and surrounded himself with enablers who were only too happy to provide him with diversions from writing.
In Demon Box (1986), he delivered a brutally honest account of his own failures. It's the most searing act of self-examination by an American writer since F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up. Yet throughout the book, stubborn optimism fights a pitched battle with despair: "[M]aybe it was time to talk a little of that old sky pie once more, for all the danger of dead ends or cross hairs."
And this is what struck me about Ken right up the very last time I saw him at a reading on his 60th birthday: his resilient idealism. "We're fighting a battle to save the world, whether it wants to be saved or not," he exhorted an audience at the L.A. Central Public Library. "We've got to stand up and holler, 'Christ, yes, we're liberals!' It takes a whole lot more brains and it takes a whole lot more common guts to be liberal. We've got to get off each other's cases and begin to reach out there and strengthen the other person."
In his 1964 review of Notion, Granville Hicks observed: "Many novelists have experimented with the rapid shifting of point of view, and some have tried to blend past and present. ... But I can think of no one who has made such continuous use of these two methods as Kesey. And he has made them serve his purpose: That is, he has succeeded in suggesting the complexity of life and the absence of any absolute truth."
It will take a biographer with a similar grasp of the complexity of life to illuminate the Chinese box of contradictions that was Ken Kesey. Those of us who loved the man and his work can only hope Robert Faggen and the others who come after him will be up to the challenge.
David Weddle is author ofIf They Move... Kill 'Em! The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah. He was a writer/supervising producer onBattlestar Galactica, and is currently a writer/co-executive producer on CSI.